The first three episodes of the Stephen King universe series Castle Rock have been made available, and I gobbled them up through my eyes like a greedy TV consumer. Unlike prior adaptations, Castle Rock is a “King-inspired” series — taking characters, themes and (of course) settings from his prior works, in order to create new stories.
Upon hearing the premise, I knew that this would be a great idea for King’s work. There are so many of his novels and short-stories that have great themes or characters, but wouldn’t make for a well-rounded, stand-alone adaptation. Castle Rock allows for some lesser-known King moments to make it out of our imaginations and onto our screens.
My concern was with how well it would be executed. I wanted a fixed director or writer, to give it a cohesive cinematic feel (Think the first seasons of True Detective and Fargo), but it looks as though they’ll be mixing it up throughout the season.
Fortunately, after the first three hours, this is no longer a concern of mine. Each episode flowed seamlessly into the next, and the overall mood of both the writing and directing are thoroughly King.
The town of Castle Rock, Maine has been the setting of many famous Stephen King stories, including The Body (Stand By Me) and Cujo (Cujo). So the show heavily features the “evil town of secrets” trope. The premise being that Castle Rock was once plagued by constant tragedy and death, but the last twenty years have been relatively fine.
The inciting incident sees the warden of Shawshank Prison (Yes, that Shawshank) kill himself, which leads the new warden to search an unused wing of the prison. There, they find “The Kid” — a man in his twenties who utters three words, “Henry Matthews Deaver”, who is a former resident of Castle Rock who now works as a death-row lawyer.
Deaver is an archetypal King protagonist, in that he’s trying to do the right thing, and has a good heart, but is tortured by his own past. André Holland nails this temperament, as we regularly root for Deaver’s shrewd intelligence and detective skills, while still fearing what he might say if he spilled his soul.
Bill Skarsgard plays “The Kid”, who many (including myself) are speculating is a reincarnated form of King’s ultimate antagonist; Randall Flagg. That would mean that in the span of a year, Skarsgard will have played Pennywise and Flagg — put him in a crimson hood and he’ll have the complete set.
Flagg is the devil as he appears on Earth, and he features in many of King’s works under different names and appearances, usually with the initials RF. So it only makes sense for him to have a prominent role in Castle Rock. Whenever Flagg is defeated (usually at the end of a novel), he wakes in a different body, in a new place and even another time.
So the idea seems to be that he awoke as a child in Castle Rock, unaware that he’s Flagg. The former warden was told by God that this child was the devil, and that if he kept him hidden, Castle Rock would be safe. Now this child is out of his hidden cage, and into the main cells of Shawshank, where he has already killed a cellmate by giving him cancer at-will — one of Flagg’s many known powers.
It’s setting up an arc where Deaver will literally have to play ‘devils advocate’, as he (unbeknownst to both parties) attempts to free the devil himself from incarceration. And if that’s not a Stephen King inspired plot, then I don’t know what is.
Other characters include; Molly Strand, a lifelong Castle Rock resident who has the ability to read minds and feel the same emotions as others — an extreme and highly dangerous empath; Ruth Deaver (played by Sissy Spacek), Henry’s adoptive mother who is struggling with dementia; Alan Pangborn, the retired former-sherif of Castle Rock who appears to know the most about the town’s dark history.
All of these characters are either directly lifted, or heavily influenced by other King characters, and they slot into the story with ease. Each of them adds their own intrigue to the main plot, particularly when it comes to Henry Deaver’s past.
So far the show has felt like a straight-up mystery, or perhaps a suspense thriller, with only a couple of scenes that would be considered “horror”. But given that the darkness of Castle Rock is only just waking up again, I suspect we’ll be seeing events ramp up over the course of the season.
I’m hoping that everything moves at a dramatic pace, but that we receive regular payoffs. There’s too much opportunity for story (and a plethora of source-material) for them to tip-toe towards everything. King’s writing is as successful as it is because it manages to walk the tightrope between evenly-paced suspense and dramatic action. If the show follows the structure of the first three episodes, then we should get exactly that.
It’s hard to know just how much King’s hand is in the show. He serves as executive producer, but that could mean anything from a cheque in the mail, to a creative overseer. Whichever it is, they’re portraying his work in a way that feels authentic, and as though King himself had penned the story.
This show is absolutely not fresh or groundbreaking, by any means, but it’s an homage to a man who originally was both of those things. In a world of media built on established brands and franchises, where companies are looking to produce the most authentic fan-fiction based on 20th century works, it’s great to see something that that legitimately honours the source material, while taking its own steps forward.
Give Castle Rock a try, if you’re not hooked after three episodes, then it won’t be for you — but if you are, or you’re already a Stephen King fan, then I think we’re all in for a brilliantly bleak, horrific treat.
Today is Thursday, July 26th and Brexit is going about as well as you’d expect.